Introduction to T.S. Eliot: Author Background, Works, and Style

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  • 1:12 J. Alfred Prufrock
  • 2:28 The Waste Land
  • 3:32 The Hollow Men
  • 4:20 Anglicanism
  • 5:28 Four Quartets
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

This video introduces T.S. Eliot and his major works. It outlines his early life and move to England, and traces his stylistic evolution over his most famous and significant poems.

T.S. Eliot

We're talking about T.S. Eliot. He's a poet from the Modernist period, which is from around World War I to World War II. He wrote all through there, from 1915 all the way up into the 1950s, so a little bit after World War II.

He's kind of an interloper in this course because he's actually an American. But since he really, really wanted to be British, we'll let him in. I'm kidding. He actually did become a British citizen later on in life and he lived in London from 1914 onward.

So he really is considered more of a British poet even though he was born in St. Louis, actually. Then he went to Harvard, so he spent some time in Boston. Then, in 1914, just after World War I got going, he moved to England, and he just stayed there forever.

He went to Oxford for about a year. That's why he left. But he didn't really like it that much. He ended up going to London instead. And that's where he stayed for a very long time.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Eliot's most famous works were published near the beginning of his career. They're definitely Modernist in style. When he's starting out, he publishes 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' in 1915. It's really kind of a meditative monologue of a dude, presumably J. Alfred Prufrock, though we're never actually told that. It's filled with these disjointed but striking images about this aging man wandering around a city.

This is sort of funny that he publishes this. This is really his first major published work and he was actually really young when he did it. He had just gotten married to his first wife. So he's sort of this young man at the start of his career and he's writing this poem about being old, decrepit and full of regret. So that's a little bit of an interesting kind of difference between his life and his work.

Non-Fiction and Essays

He wrote some non-fiction, some critical essays. One of his most famous ones, published in 1919, is called 'Tradition in the Individual Talent.' This sort of makes a controversial claim and people still debate what it really means. The claim is that poetry needs to be impersonal. You need to be able to interpret it without knowing anything about the author and his circumstances. So that's what he says in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent.'

The Waste Land

What he does next is publish 'The Waste Land.' That's really his big ticket poem. If you're going to read any Eliot, well, first read 'Prufrock,' but then read 'The Waste Land.' It's pretty cool. And that's in 1922.

This is really one of the most famous works of Modernism. It seemed to really embody the movement. It's highly referential; it references lots of other works. It's kind of directly about devastation and disorganization and how to regenerate that. That's sort of the preoccupation, with regeneration of something that is a waste land in metaphoric and literal senses.

It's also full of real juxtapositions between past and present. There'll be right next to each other in the same part of the poem. It's got a nice, basic five-part structure with some of Eliot's notes at the end. The poem is so complicated that he had to add his own notes to it so you might have a prayer of understanding what it means.

The Hollow Men

So then in 1925, Eliot publishes a little poem called 'The Hollow Men,' a sort of follow-up to 'The Waste Land.' It's still heavily allusive, but you can already see a beginning of change in his style. It's not quite as heavily ironic. It's less grounded in a particular place. 'The Waste Land' was really sort of grounded in London in a lot of senses. And it feels more hurried. It has shorter line lengths. It's got less long, meditative lines, essentially.

It also contains one of the most quoted lines ever in the history of literature:

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

You've probably heard that. And fun fact: it's T.S. Eliot, but it's from 'The Hollow Men,' not from 'The Waste Land' or 'Prufrock,' which are more famous poems.

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